The idea of self-driving cars might conjure up an image akin to The Jetsons or one of the many other variations of retro pop culture and futurism that’s lodged in our collective imagination. If you woke up in some such world, would you call it a dream? —A nightmare? This question sprouts a tree of others when we think about the cars of the future.
Let’s look at the positives. Self-driving cars would instantly free up time. You could be more productive on your way to your job, take a nap, or entertain yourself with the latest gadget. It could potentially eliminate the problem of drunk driving; it could reduce car crashes, and it could (if these cars were fueled by electricity or other alternative resources) reduce our carbon footprint and clean up our air. Sounds nice, doesn’t it? But a little reflection may reveal some potential problems brewing under the surface.
One of the potential issues is the industry itself. Self-driving cars could take down the near century-long love affair with driving motor vehicles. With companies like Uber already chomping at the bit to bring in on demand self-driving cars, there may be a time where many car companies that currently exist just get phased out. In theory you could just call up, or locate a car (similar to the various Car-To-Go services that already exist) and pay to be on your way. Why have your own car if you could just pay a bit here and there when you need to be driven somewhere? The appeal seems widespread. A study by Michael Sivak and Brandon Schoettle at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute found that the average number of vehicles per American household is 2.1–and according to the study, that could dip as low as 1.2, a reduction of 43% if self-driving cars came into the market. We simply wouldn’t need as many cars. This is sure to ripple through related economies.
So what does the future have in store for us? It might be too soon to say, but the momentum toward developing these technologies makes it seem like an inevitable reality.